Category Archives: Jiu-Jitsu

Trying to Find a Balance with Darragh O Conaill

There is nothing that I don’t fucking love about Jiu-Jitsu”

In the run up to his superfight at Polaris 3, I spent the day at East Coast Jiu-Jitsu  in Dublin with head honcho, Darragh O Conaill. Darragh is a success story for his native country. As a competitor he is a European champion and has had international recognition for his role on BJJ Kumite. He is also a successful businessman with his academy. This is coupled with his skill as a teacher, where he has created arguably the strongest and most competitively successful team in Ireland, producing his own European champions. I spent the day kicking it with the man in an attempt to discover whether it was possible to succeed at the highest level in all three areas.

The morning at the academy begins with Darragh the businessman, albeit in a pair of shorts and a fitted hat. Before all the fun begins there is the admin; vital yet unglamorous tasks have to be attended to, such as ordering stock, updating memberships, cleaning the toilets and handling all the social media.

The academy itself is beautiful, it looks like a large scale academy you would expect to find in Southern California, but the three heaters blowing directly onto the mats remind you exactly where you are. Darragh appears to have the business side of things on lock. He has 160 students, with new students arriving and checking out classes daily with a high rate of return.

When questioned on whether this came naturally to him, he explained that he picked it up incrementally – at first it was just ‘teach the class and pay the rent’. Then as more students began to join via word of mouth, his responsibilities increased. Then he had to set up a beginners class, which in turn necessitated setting up Gi sales. Interest from parents led to multiple kids classes and a website had to be created and maintained to market the product. 

Travel to different academies worldwide has taught him vital lessons, in addition to being schooled by mentors Saulo Ribeiro and Rafael Lovato on creating a profitable business. But even then, not everything was applicable to Irish customers. His success has mostly been derived from reacting to new situations as they have presented themselves.

At 11 o’clock, Darragh becomes the competitor. This begins with an hour of yoga. This is something that he has incorporated into his routine as a form of injury prevention, which has allowed him to perform at the highest level as he navigates through his long day of teaching and training. 

The first class begins at noon. Whilst he teaches the class, this functions as his training too, so he dictates it towards what he feels he needs to work on. The session is focused on simulating scenarios one might encounter in the competition through systematic drills, and specific sparring.

This training could never be confused with the ‘gentle art’, it is literally kill or be killed, either from young purple belts berimboloing you like crazy, or having your lights begin to dim as your very last breath is squeezed from your chest via Darragh’s signature baseball bat choke.

Darragh had a good measure of success at the brown belt level with a European title and multiple wins at the IBJJF London Open. When questioned on his transition from brown belt to black belt and whether it had been impeded by responsibilities as a teacher and an academy owner, he explains that it has definitely made the process slower. At this year’s Pan Ams he fought Yago de Souza from Cicero Costa. He admits that he was bettered by someone who was faster and sharper than himself, Yago, a beast of a human being, went on to claim the title. The key difference here is that Yago’s sole focus is his training, every single day, he has no additional responsibilities, no business to run or students to looks after. This is a luxury that Darragh simply does not have.

During the morning session there are high level purple belts on the mats, but is this enough to succeed at the highest level when a competitor like Yago is able to train with fellow black belts every day? Darragh is a competitor on the highest stage and is trying to win the same accolades yet he can’t just focus on himself and he doesn’t have access to other top black belts all the time. He freely admits that he has considered whether it would be better moving to America or Brazil.

“But how I learn is from the experience of fighting these guys, now I know how fast this guy is. So now I know how fast that I am expected to be next time that I compete.”

He concludes that he is still able to, “…get to a really good level, but it is a longer process, competitively it is a disadvantage but it is my choice.”

The afternoon’s focus is back on the business and time for doing the mundane shit, as he puts it We’re gonna do three things at once.”.  Time for the things the Jiu-Jitsu videographers don’t document; Gis for new students have to be taken to be washed, mats have to be cleaned and toilet paper has to be bought. This is coupled with answering questions for this article, before jumping straight into a podcast for Show the Art.

Maintaining energy levels is most difficult aspect in creating a balance, he explains, finding the time and the energy to do everything that needs to be done. Having energy cannot be understated; as a teacher you have to be excited in front of students:

You can’t come in and be like ‘fuck it, do an arm-bar’ as everyone will have a shitty experience. It is hard to find the energy to go and buy a gas canister and waiting in line but that is a piece that is essential for the whole process to run smoothly.

“Doing 45 minutes of straight rolling in preparation for the Polaris super-fight, and being so exhausted, but still having to do the rest of the day. Finding the energy to do the rest of it is one of the more challenging aspects, but not as challenging as putting a suit on and going to an office.”

The evening is time for Darragh to assume the role of teacher, mentor and role-model for his students. He teaches three classes a day, but with a growing academy and a popular children and teen program, it has been essential to delegate some responsibilities to his students. Thus, these two programs have been passed on to trusted blue and purple belts to run, as well as help from long-time students manning the admin side of things, working the front desk in the evening.

Sometimes when big competitions are coming up or super-fights, he will instruct one of his students to take the class and he will jump in as a student himself.

This trust that he has placed in his students has paid off in their own success, with many of his students establishing their own academies and making Jiu-Jitsu their full-time occupation. When questioned, he is characteristically coy on his own influence, not only in the success of his students, but also the firm hand he has had growing the Jiu-Jitsu scene on the Emerald Isle. He explains that if anything it is his love of Jiu-Jitsu and his work ethic that has inspired his students.

They can see how much that I love it – they see the lifestyle that I live, I don’t have to go to a real job and wear a suit and they love BJJ just as much, so they want that too”.

He goes on to say that he has lots of friends that don’t know what they love, they don’t know what they want to do in life and thus end up settling. So when he sees people who really love Jiu-Jitsu the way he does, he tries to facilitate their path to success. With multiple full-time athletes and five students now running their own spots – his positive influence is apparent.

His own teaching in the evening begins at 6 o’clock, after fun and competitive games during the warm-up, Darragh switches to a meticulous and no-nonsense style of teaching to a packed class. His technique is packed with layers of detail which ensures that students of varying levels of experience are able to access and gain an insight.

His teaching is based around the competition, the use of the points system, a breakdown of where scores occur and common ways people give away points. He preaches the importance of competition, as such he encourages everyone to compete, and going even further, believing it is something that everyone should do. The competitive success of the team can be seen as a direct result of this ethos which is propagated and instilled by all students. But this isn’t to say that students are forced to compete. Whilst this aspect of Jiu-Jitsu is given primary importance, Darragh himself stresses:

Don’t let tournaments overrule everything – it is Jiu-Jitsu itself that makes you a better person, not competition.”

Throughout the class he uses positive reinforcement as an effective tool with his teaching, ensuring that students are constantly praised for their successes. Even though the class is large, there is a distinct focus on individualised learning as he takes students aside during the rolling to provide them with additional details and explain why certain things have just happened during sparring.

At the end of the day as the beginners class finishes and the last student asks the last question, Darragh, the teacher, the businessman and the competitor reflects on whether it is possible to excel in all three areas. He thinks it is, but admits it takes a long time – much longer than if you were focusing on just one of them. What is apparent from my day with him is that he has found a balance where he is able to do what he loves every single day.

The Philosopher and the Clown

This blog originally began as a love letter to my favourite grappler and idol, Fernando Tereré. He was the reason I spent a year of my life living in Rio, where he invited me to live amongst his friends and family in the favela that he grew up in.

He is a philosopher, a clown, and a role-model rolled into one fallible human being. And here are some more of my observations and musings on the man from my last stay in the cradle of Jiu-Jitsu.

We’ll begin from the point that I consider Tereré to be literally the most charismatic human being I have ever encountered in my entire life. It is this charisma that ensured his beloved status within the Jiu-Jitsu community long after his competitive career ended, and after all of his well known struggles with mental illness and addiction. He is someone who seems to have an endless supply of energy that is infectious to anyone in his radius, he is a man who manages to uplift the mood of everyone else.

His fun loving side and childish silliness make it so much fun to spend time with him. There was the time he hijacked an American student’s skateboard (which was ‘donated’ to the academy) and used it to ride down the steep road adjacent to the academy. I wasn’t the only one who felt like this was going to end in some serious amount of pain; either from the passing cars or the hard concrete, but it didn’t faze the man at all, he even went back for an equally nail biting second run. Then the time we were sat together at the academy and he said, “Moz, look at this”. He was deep into a conversation with a seemingly interested girl and had asked her if she would like to ‘talk dirty‘. He proceeded to start talking the talk; when said female asked for some pictures of him, without a moment’s hesitation, he sent a picture of his childhood friend, fellow black belt and professor at the academy, Julio Nogueira. The kicker here, Professor Nogueira happens to be a hundred and twenty kilos of sheer humanity smiling away in his kimono, not quite what she was expecting, one would imagine!

Any evidence of this immature sense of humour all but disappears when it is time to train; it would be unfair to stop short of calling him a genius on the mats. All the years of training, competing and teaching Jiu-Jitsu has not diminished the passion that he has for the sport. Watching Tereré train with his long-time friend and renowned black-belt in his own right, Elan Santiago, he studiously examines new techniques before beginning to rep them slowly, considering each and every movement. This acquisition of potentially new information is serious business, which is evident from the concentration on his face as he analyses every facet of it, looking for any holes there might be. When he is satisfied with the efficiency of something he drills it until it flows naturally into his game and then uses it enthusiastically on everyone that night.

It has been interesting observing the visitors who arrive daily at the academy from all over the world. It is certainly a heart-warming thing, the looks of awe on their faces when Tereré asks them to roll. It is the look of a little dude on Christmas morning, if all Christmas mornings in history were combined together. I can empathise with every single one of them too, no matter how many times we spar together, I cannot help but smile as I’m hit with the inevitable hook sweep, have my back taken and am quickly choked into near unconsciousness.

Although on the opposite side, certain dudes come to the academy with legend assassination on their mind, and will try to really put it on him whilst rolling. Whether you consider this disrespectful is a matter of personal opinion, although it is ultimately irrelevant as, when their intentions become clear, the volume is cranked up to 11 and these opportunistic individuals end up strangled in brutal fashion.

While this enthusiasm and energy radiates from him, he is at his most passionate when spending time with the children of his social project. Since returning home after his issues with addiction, he established his academy, which has provided free training for all children, and indeed adults, of his impoverished community. His goal for the project was to improve the lives of children in the community by providing them with a safe environment, removed from the drugs and violence which is unfortunately endemic within the favela.

He is a teacher, a role model, a friend and a hero to the children of the favela. Whilst in the community, little boys and girls flock to him. These children did not see him in his competitive heyday, they didn’t see the world title wins, they have no idea what he has meant to the sport of Jiu-Jitsu. They are drawn to him because of the love and affection that he has for them. With his project, he is providing much more than Jiu-Jitsu, there are positive role-models which sadly are lacking in many of the children’s lives, as well as somewhere they can spend time with their friends which is safe, and a place they can depend on to be fed.

Whilst on the mats, there is a lot of time for fun and games but when it comes time to introduce technique, Terere treats his young students as seriously as he does the adults. Witnessing the kids train is very different from classes here in the UK. They are taught like the adults. Risk assessments do not exist in Brazil, thus no techniques are restricted. And they go hard in sparring, hanging off each other’s necks and trying to drive each other through the mats with big throws. They are actively encouraged by Tereré, who sits on the side, giving precise instructions to his pint-sized students. The proof is in the pudding with the academy producing a green belt champion at this year’s IBJJF Pan Kids.

After their class, as the adults get warmed up and ready for their session, he can be regularly found outside flying kites with them the until class starts, surrounded by smiling kimono clad children, but the biggest smile always remains on his face.

This care for the children stretches off the mats and away from the academy. I received a shock one Saturday afternoon as I was walking along the beach, my mind somewhere else. I heard a familiar voice. “Oi Moz!”. I turned around to find Tereré surrounded by an eclectic mix of people; an army of his young students, battle hardened Brazilian black belts, and a assortment of dudes of varying nationalities all chilling, surfing and eating together. This surprise encounter ensured an awesome afternoon which ended back at Tereré’s spot for a carnivorous feast of meat in typical Churrasco style.

At the end of my stay, I had a private lesson which abandoned the traditional structure of exploring new techniques; I was given a theoretical lesson in Jiu-Jitsu. He is a different man when he is explaining technique one to one; gone is the jovial, energetic character that lights up in the room, replacing him is the thoughtful, analytical and brutally honest master of the art of Jiu-Jitsu.

Using his personal philosophy of Jiu-Jitsu, he broke down my game and explained to me my shortcomings. He concluded that I don’t “Play Jiu-Jitsu”, I come to the academy everyday and try to beat people relying solely on what I am already good at (yep, deep half!). I don’t open myself up to new positions or explore other avenues and possibilities, which, he explained, are essential to progress. In my head I was expecting some new technique and maybe some praise for my recent success at the IBJJF Open in Manaus, instead I was given a scolding for being so closed-minded!

Whilst his brutally honest assessment seemed harsh, it was so obvious how much he cared about my Jiu-Jitsu and its evolution. He wanted me above all things to gain an understanding of the bigger picture, which, according to his brutal analysis, I didn’t currently have. It hurt a little as I thought I was getting somewhere, only to find out I hadn’t really been going anywhere and success in competition wasn’t evidence of advancement.

In this hour he gave me something so much more important than a few techniques. He hadn’t given me any answers, but rather a formula to work them out for myself.  

It has been a real privilege to have befriended the man who has transformed my Jiu-Jitsu game but more importantly is transforming the lives of those around him.